The Once and Future River

Promenades and parks, cappuccino and condos: Tomorrow's upper Mississippi looks dandy. But first, can't city hall get rid of those grimy scrapyards? Why, yes.

That means that any existing business not included in the city's grand plan will be deemed "nonconforming." Properties that don't conform to the zoning code run into all kinds of trouble: most notably, any expansions or improvements requiring a permit aren't allowed, which business owners say devalues their properties. In short, rezoning the upper river corridor will do permanently what the moratorium was able to do only temporarily: freeze current-use development there, and give city leaders time to shore up the money and the momentum needed to clear out the old and bring in the new.

What will become of Schoen's property in this equation isn't yet settled. At the September 30 meeting, a BRW architect suggested that the Harmony building might fit in with a "mixed-use" plan. Council member Biernat appears to favor housing as a "viable use in that location." The MCDA's Boardman says that the Minneapolis-based Brighton Development Corp., which has built hundreds of high-end housing units farther down the river, has expressed interest in the site. Brighton partner Peggy Lucas concurs, but adds that her firm would proceed only if Harmony were "empty and boarded," which it isn't, at least not yet. Schoen now says he is seriously considering declaring bankruptcy, as well as allowing the bank to foreclose on his property; should the latter occur, the property's value would arguably be lower for a prospective buyer such as the city.

And should the city come calling, the only thing left to be settled is price. Eminent domain statutes allow government entities to forcibly acquire land from private owners via condemnation, if it can be successfully argued that redevelopment will serve a "public purpose." Repeat the maneuver a dozen times, and the attrition rate along the river may fall right in line with the grand plan.

Jeff Tolbert

Within the month, BRW's upper river blueprint will be formally presented to the Planning Commission for approval. Biernat expects it to then come before the city council sometime after the first of the year. While council members have voiced their general support for the redevelopment scheme, they have yet to begin what is sure to be a contentious argument about the particulars: What will the riverfront finally look like, what will it cost, and where will the money come from?

 

"Waterfront reclamation" projects have become all the rage in cities across the nation, says Judith Martin, who directs the urban studies program at the University of Minnesota and serves as president of the Minneapolis Planning Commission. She points to the work of the Rouse Company, whose recent projects include the South Street Seaport in New York, Harborplace in Baltimore, and Pioneer Place in Portland, as a model for urban planners. The company's formula calls for the wholesale overhaul of longtime industrial areas along city waterfronts, and the installation of retail stores, hotels, condos, parks, and boardwalks.

Martin says the Minneapolis plan is right in keeping with the trend. Still, she wonders whether there will be enough political and public will to pay for it. "I think there are more people around now asking questions about the ways that public monies are being spent," she says. "There's a much more informed citizenry. They are less likely to believe that the planners or the people promoting these sorts of changes really know what they're doing."

Those spearheading the Minneapolis "reclamation" beg to differ. Biernat is quick to stress that the city's vision is the product of years of careful study and analysis. Furthermore, he points to BRW's proposed timetable for completing the plan--a minimum of two decades. Many of the industries facing removal from the upper river, he adds, aren't in immediate peril. The grand plan is divided into three phases: the first focuses on creating new park space, and calls for relocating the Lafarge Corporation's cement storage facility and, perhaps, the Riverview Supper Club near the Broadway Avenue Bridge. The second and third phase, according to BRW's recommendations, will involve moving heavy industry off the river--exactly when, no one involved in the planning can predict, because the timetable depends on the city's fundraising success.

Jeff Schoen may be the only business owner currently caught between the city's desire for a new riverfront and its ability to finance the dream. But he's hardly alone in feeling the long shadow being cast by Minneapolis's long-range vision.

John Isaacs, CEO of American Iron & Supply Co., which sits upstream and across the river from Harmony, has been fighting the city for a decade over his company's plans to install a metal shredder (brand name: Kondirator) on land it has occupied for 50 years. As for the BRW proposal, he says, "I've referred to this plan as an unfunded fairy tale." What would it take for American Iron to cede its property to, say, a new housing development? Isaacs narrows his eyes and responds: "A lot."

Cement distributor Holnam Inc., which since 1967 has operated on the west side of the Mississippi just south of the Lowry Avenue Bridge, was planning an expansion when Biernat first floated the idea of a moratorium. Holnam is one of three private companies along the disputed stretch that ships goods by barge. The distributor wanted to add a 5,000-ton silo to increase capacity at the terminal, for one simple reason: The building boom in the Twin Cities meant Holnam's customers wanted more cement.

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